How to learn to fly

The right flight school can make or break your training as a newbie.

This story originally featured on Flying. See here for more guides on learning how to fly.

A flight school (otherwise known as an aviation training organization (ATO)) conducts the business of teaching people to fly. It can take on a variety of guises, from the small, traditional flight school at a local airport using a light aircraft or two all the way to those international ATOs that train pilots for the airlines—and often conduct their recurrent training as well—in large fleets of aircraft and flight simulators. Of course, there are many that fall in between these two generic categories.

The organization you choose should depend on a couple of factors. Primary among them is your goal. If you want to learn to fly at a measured pace—near your home, for your own business or recreation—you’ll generally search locally for a place to train. If you want a career in aviation, you’ll make a larger investment in time and money. You should look both locally and nationally—or around the world—based on where you want to fly and how much you can spend.

If your goals are personal, you will pursue a certificate under the civil aviation authority where you live (such as the FAA in the US). If you want to fly internationally, you may choose an ATO elsewhere that provides training for the type of pilot certificate that will make you most attractive to your airline or company of choice.

Before you start, try to locate pilots who have achieved your goals—especially if you can connect with those who work at the company in which you’re most interested—and talk with them about what worked best and if they have a flight school they would recommend. Keep in mind, though, that what works best for one pilot may not be the right choice for another, so you’ll still need to do some homework—and legwork—to make the best decision.

You’ll also need to understand a little bit about yourself and the environment in which you thrive. Perhaps you went to (or plan to attend) a large university that offers a wide range of services and new people to meet—and the energy that comes from being in the thick of it. Or maybe you crave a more intimate scale for your learning experiences, where a small class or one-on-one training suits you best—a place where everyone knows your name and folks look out for each other. While both large and small flight schools can deliver the goods, some students find one that suits them better than the other.

Considering all these elements, let’s take a look at the kind of flight school you might find at your local or regional airport within driving or commuting distance. The travel time is a factor that can cut into your ability to schedule enough time for flying. You may be geographically narrowed to one or two options if you live in a rural area, or fight a lot of traffic. In this case, your choice of instructor may also be somewhat limited.

A small flight school may or may not have a chief flight instructor and other staff; it could be informally arranged, operating under Part 61, and work as a collection of flight instructors who use the same airplanes to teach. This casual structure doesn’t necessarily mean there’s no structure at all. Some of the best training can happen under these conditions—if they suit you. Interview the manager or owner of the school to get a sense of what to expect. You may even find that a flight instructor working on his or her own can provide the personalized attention you need, but consider that this plan may offer little in terms of a backup if that CFI encounters a health issue or a maintenance problem with an aircraft they use for training.

A larger flight school, or ATO, will have more administrative staff and certain positions required by the civil aviation authority, depending on the number of students and aircraft. You will want to interview the chief flight instructor (and chief ground instructor, if you can) to determine what level of quality they strive for in their operations. The larger the school, the more variety it typically has in terms of its course offerings and, perhaps, the choice of aircraft. It may provide training beyond the commercial- or airline-transport-pilot level and into type-rating training on entry-level jets such as the CRJ series or Embraer E145—or even the Airbus A320 or Boeing 737.

You could also choose to attend a degree or vocational program delivered by a college or university dedicated to aviation. This path typically interests those who pursue a career as a professional pilot, but you might enjoy adding flight subjects for a broader degree. Associations such as the Aviation Accreditation Board International and the University Aviation Association can provide feedback on a given institution’s reputation and diligence in the industry.

Regardless of the size of the operation, you will want to see the following when you visit your school of choice:

  • Does the facility appear clean, well-maintained and welcoming? You’ll want to spend your time at a place that reflects pride and positivity in its daily operations.
  • Do the aircraft appear well-maintained and tidy? Ask what kind of maintenance program the aircraft follow, whether they are maintained in-house or by a local provider. Either is fine, but there should be no hesitation in the answer.
  • Do the flight instructors follow a standard syllabus, or are they free to conduct their own training regime? Too strict a program may be stifling to some people, but there should be a certain amount of oversight, even in a small operation.
  • Does the flight school or ATO ask you for cash up front, or a large deposit (more than 10 to 20 percent), to begin your training? Any more than this amount should raise a red flag about the organization’s financial practices and may hint at cash flow problems down the road.
  • Does the general demeanor of the school reflect positive attitudes on the part of the staff and students or clients? One person’s complaints may be an outlier, but hearing negative comments from multiple sources bodes ill for a good training experience. Don’t forget to check online for comments or reviews of the schools you find interesting.

You might also consider how well the school has modernized and whether they incorporate flight simulation into their training syllabi. Flight-training devices—as the FAA refers to approved simulators for light aircraft—come in a wide variety of types and price points. Using one can greatly aid your training, not just from a cost standpoint but also in terms of time and effectiveness of training.

If the flight school where you intend to train doesn’t use any form of flight-training device—even a desktop computer running a good flight-sim program such as X-Plane or Microsoft Flight Sim can be of use—take that as an indication the school might not be up to the latest standards in terms of training savvy. This is particularly true if you intend to pursue a professional-pilot track. You will be training in full-motion, sophisticated flight simulators for much (or all) of your airline and jet-type-rating training, so becoming comfortable in an FTD can pay great dividends for your career.

Whatever direction you choose, remember that the relationship you build with the school is a two-way street; you have rights as a customer, but you also need to fulfill their requirements as a participant in their training. If you understand what is being asked of you, and you deliver on those expectations, you should reap the benefits of their expertise. You also deserve to be treated with respect—and give that respect in return—or reconsider the relationship.

These are just a few tips to get you started on your research. For more information, there are a number of online resources to help you locate a good flight school in your area. You can begin that search on Flying’s Learn to Fly webpage where we link to ways to search effectively and understand the information that an ATO promotes online.